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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Presenting...Tuscany (And Our Adventure to find the Quintessential Winding Road)!

Last week we spent the entire week exploring Tuscany! I had been anxiously awaiting to go to Tuscany since it is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in Italy, but we put it off until Spring so that the flowers and trees could be in bloom. It definitely did not disappoint!

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and stayed in an agriturismo a few kilometers away from San Gimignano. It ended up being a pretty good central location from which we were able to branch out in all directions to visit different towns and cities. Throughout the week, we were able to see San Gimignano, Siena, Florence, Montepulciano, Pienza, and Volterra. It seems like a lot, but pretty much every place except Florence you can maybe dedicate a day or a few hours and see everything (these are tiny towns, after all).

A good starting point for this series of posts is the magnificent views. I had always wondered whenever I saw pictures of the beautiful green hills and bright blue skies if they were photoshopped, but now I know better. I have never in all my life seen grass that is greener or more beautiful. It is truly a photographer's paradise.

No need to photoshop this at all. 

As you can see, Arya is just ecstatic to be enjoying some of that warm Tuscan sun. 
 On the last two days, we headed out to the quintessential part of Tuscany called Val d 'Orcia. It is a UNESCO site and the location for most films depicting Tuscany. Val d'Orcia is also home to some of the most picturesque Italian towns like Pienza (also a UNESCO site) and Montepulciano.

Of course, we were also on a mission. There's a famous picture of Tuscany of a winding road lined with cypress trees. It's in our guidebook (we use DK Travel's Guidebooks for every country we go to) and it's been in several movies like Letter's To Juliet (that's one I can remember off the top of my head). The problem was that for the life of me, I couldn't find a detailed description of where exactly this road was.

So on Friday, we packed a picnic and put Arya in her travel kennel and went on the search for the elusive winding road. Several blogs online talked about it, but some said you could see it from Pienza, some from Montepulciano, and some from a little town called Montecchielo. Luckily, these places are all within a few kilometers of each other, so it was all a matter of driving around and finding it before sunset (which was when Jaime wanted to take the picture).

We arrived at Montecchielo first and I was so hungry that we found a little park and had our picnic before we did anything else. After, we took a look at some of the panoramic views but our winding road was nowhere to be seen.

The panoramic view from Montecchielo
Jaime asked in a bar and we were informed that there was indeed a winding road close by, but there was also a more famous one a few kilometers away. So we got back in our car and started driving. We felt ourselves going up a winding road (we assumed this is the first one the lady at the bar was talking about) but kept going because we couldn't get a decent view from the top of the hill.

Somewhere in there is our winding road, I can feel it!
We finally found the second winding road, pretty much exactly where the lady told us. Unfortunately we had to travel through a forest and lots of unpaved roads, which get Jaime really nervous about scratching his baby (the car).

This winding road was indeed beautiful, but not the one we were looking for. The road was unpaved, whereas the one we wanted had real roads, and it was a lot wider than the one in the picture. Nonetheless, since we had been unsuccessful in finding the other one, we made plans to return at sunset to try to get pictures.

Winding road #2

In the meantime, we went to Montepulciano (pictures to come in a later post) and spent the afternoon walking around, eating gelato, and looking for Edward Cullen (Twilight reference, a past guilty pleasure of mine). At sunset, we drove back to our spot. Jaime snapped a few shots, but he was not satisfied. He wanted the real winding road, dammit!

We climbed back into the car and started racing to Montecchielo, trying to beat nature before the light was completely gone. On the way, I was frantically looking on my phone (at 10% battery left, our life is like a movie) for any small clue as to where this place was. Finally, deep into the third or fourth page of Google that no one ever goes to, an article detailed that you would find the road as you approached Montecchielo from the south, right before you arrived on the right hand side.

As we were on the home stretch into Montecchielo, I was desperately looking for this road until finally, right before the sign that signals the boundaries of Montecchielo, I saw it. But it was nothing like we had seen in the picture at least from our angle on the road. In fact, it was almost invisible unless you were searching, as we were, as if our life depended on it (our trip did depend on it, because that was the last sunset we would have in Tuscany). So Jaime trekked into the beautiful green Tuscan grass until he found the angle he was looking for and was able to finally get his picture *tears*.

What an inspiring story of perseverance and success!

As you can see, it was already deep into the "blue hour", that time between sunset and night sky that photographers sell their soul for. Unfortunately, the sun was setting from behind where Jaime was, so the brilliant pinks and blues were actually behind him. Still, it's a pretty great photo.

UPDATE: Thanks to my amazing hubby, I was able to get the exact coordinates of where we took the picture. Of course, once I saw the map I feel even more dumb. We were taking the road highlighted by the green arrow and we saw the winding road (on the right) from where the red arrow is. We parked the car there and Jaime trekked to the coordinates and took his picture. Now, it's clear that if we had taken a right at the unpaved road we would have had a clear shot of the road, possibly without having to trek across the grass. But now you guys don't have to make the same mistake we did. We were under a lot of pressure from Mother Nature. 

Fear not, because I wouldn't leave you guys without a real photo of a Tuscan sunset. These were taken from my phone a day or two before.

Finally, here are a few more of Tuscany's beautiful rolling hills (it's so difficult to choose just a few):

How beautiful is this?!?!

All in all, I think it is definitely worth it to rent a car and spend at least two days in the rural parts of Tuscany, or at the very least in the beautiful Val d'Orcia. It is a great break from the hustle and bustle of the big cities and the views are just unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on Florence, Siena, and the rest of the places we visited!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Happy 1st Day of Spring!

Yes, the dreaded winter has finally passed and, at least in Rome, you can really start to feel the difference. The weather has been absolutely fabulous the past week, the bright green bulbs are starting to come out on all the empty tree branches, and every store has pastel spring dresses on display. Being from Miami, this immediately lifts my spirits tenfold... until I see my friends on Facebook already tanned from how much they're going to the beach. But at this point I'll take what I can get.

The face of someone that is loving the return of Spring!

I've been MIA for the past week and it's been because of a combination of things. We have stayed in Rome for the past two weekends, since we seriously needed a little bit of a break from the road trips every weekend. I've also been looking to buy new furniture here in Italy and the process is complicated and time consuming, but that's a post for another day if I'm ever successful in that particular endeavor.

This past Sunday, we celebrated the amazing weather with a little picnic in Villa Borghese. I had really wanted to do that since the moment we arrived at the end of last summer and Jaime is on board for anything that has food.

Can you be mad at someone with blue eyes like those?

Instead of packing our own picnic, we went to a cute little place called GiNa's close to the Spanish Steps where they actually prepare the entire picnic "basket" (more like insulated duffel bag) for you! For 40€, you get two sandwiches, two drinks, potato chips, bread, fruit cups, dessert, and a thermos with espresso and cookies. There is also a deluxe basket, which I'm guessing has the wine, but we were cheapos and brought our own wine. The basket also has everything you can possibly need, from bottle openers, to salt and pepper, to plates and utensils. It was so cute!

All in all, I think even though the price is a little steep, it's worth it especially if you don't want to deal with the hassle of preparing everything yourself or if you are traveling and simply don't have your own picnic things at hand. Obviously though, anyone that knows Jaime knows he's already looking for his own picnic basket so the days of not having to prepare picnic food for me are over!

Arya trying to get in on some of the chocolate action. No self preservation whatsoever.

"Yes, flowers!"

Anyway, if you're in Rome and want to explore Villa Borghese, consider doing a little picnic or ordering it from GiNa's! We had a ton of fun (until Arya committed a party foul and knocked over a glass of wine on our picnic blanket)!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Updated About Me & Travel Sections!

Hey guys, I just updated my About the Girl page and Travel page! Go check it out!

Carnevale di Viareggio 2014

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. In Italy, with it's strong Catholic background, it is obviously very important. Just as important, however, was what happened before today...Carnevale! Otherwise known as Mardi Gras in the USA.

In my Venice post, I included some pictures of the beginning of Carnevale season and talked a little bit of the events that took place while we were there. While Venice's Carnevale is probably the most famous, it is by no means the only one in Italy. Most Italian cities and towns celebrate Carnevale in some way or another, with the exception of Rome this year. 

But when has that stopped us? 

Italy Magazine (a fantastic resource of all things Italy, if you ask me) had an article about some of the best Carnevale celebrations in Italy and we got the idea to go Viareggio, a Tuscan beach town about four hours north of Rome, known for some of the best Carnevale floats in all of Italy. It has been around since 1873, back then the floats were made out of wood and plaster while today they are made out of papier mâché with some pretty eccentric themes, as you will see in the pictures. 

We had a ton of fun, while Arya was a little scared of all the people and loud music. We did have to pay an entrance fee of 15€/person, but it was totally worth it. While we left early because we did have to drive back to Rome, I'm sure the party lasted all night long. 

Here are some pictures:

Yes, those are some naked Italian politicians, as well as a naked Angela Merkel in the front. 

Below: I obviously thought Mario & Luigi were HILARIOUS!

My favorite float: John Lennon and the Beatles!

Zombies worshipping money. 
For more pictures, visit My Napoleon Complex's Facebook page!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Photos from Murano & Burano

The Saturday we were in Venice we (or, more accurately, I) decided we wanted to go to Murano and Burano, two of the islands close to Venice. I was dead set on buying a Murano ornament and Burano is known for its lace so I figured it would be nice to get something there as well. One of the few times I actually went somewhere with the specific purpose to shop.

Murano is very popular, as is the Murano glass, and when I think of Venice, I automatically think of Murano as well. Murano's glassmaking industry began when the Venetians forced glass artisans to move there in 1291 for fear of fire in the main island. Glassmakers held a high place in Venetian society and for centuries they were known to be the best high-quality glassmakers in all of Europe. Today, the islands population is around 5000 and some of the oldest glass making companies are still around, making glass objects in the same way they used to do hundreds of years ago.

Murano statue in the middle of the piazza.
If you are looking to buy Murano glass and I mean real Murano glass, not the Made in China stuff, it is not enough to just go into the island and start buying from any of the hundreds of stores that line the streets. As I found out, Murano glass is protected by the Veneto Region with a "Vetro Artistico Murano" trademark sticker. If it does not have this sticker, IT IS NOT MURANO GLASS, or at least, not guaranteed. I thought this was important because Murano glass is expensive and if you decide to spend money on it, you should make sure it's the real thing. In Murano, everything has more or less the same price range, from expensive to "my-wallet-is-bleeding" expensive, even if it's not guaranteed Murano glass.

To get to Murano, we took a vaporetto from Piazza San Marco and were there in about 15 minutes. One thing we noticed about vaporetti are that they are so much more reliable than buses in Rome. But maybe that's because traffic on the water is not the same as traffic on the streets :).

After completing our mission of finding my Murano masterpiece, we headed to Burano.  Burano is 7 kilometers from Venice and it wasn't until after the 40 minute vaporetto ride that we realized exactly how far that was. But it was totally worth it. Burano is known for it's lace, but it is not like Murano, where every street is just shop after shop of glass. Except for a few specific stores, it was mostly just souvenir shops with a few "handmade" lace objects, while every shop had a little old lady threading needles (for the tourists' benefit, I'm sure). We did end up buying a tablecloth in Burano, but whether it is really handmade as they claim is anyone's guess. The quality and the details of it are simply outstanding regardless.

One of my favorites.

We offered to take a picture of a couple and they returned the favor.
Turns out, the guy was a photographer and was all artistic with a slanted kiss picture.
Ended up being Jaime's favorite picture, even though he's Mr. OCD-straight-lines-and-centered. 

What I loved most about Burano, however, was the island's colorful homes. Apparently residents must check with the local government whenever they want to paint their homes for acceptable colors for their area.

If you're in Venice for even just a weekend, I highly recommend not just staying in the main island and making a day trip to these two islands. We did both in about 6 hours and that was with us taking our time and including the rather long vaporetti rides. For more information on Murano glass as well as a list of stores in Murano with guaranteed Murano glass, check out the official website here.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Venice, the City of Romance, on Valentine's Day

I am BEYOND EXCITED to write this post. We spent last weekend in VENICE as part of Jaime's Valentine's Day present. Isn't he romantic?

I had been to Venice once before, a few years back, but it was part of a school trip and we spent a grand total of about 8 hours in the city. So I don't really count that. Even though back then I didn't have a lot of time to do much, I still remembered how beautiful the city was, even in the dead of summer with thousands and thousands of tourists. I knew I wanted to go back at some point for at least a weekend. Jaime had never been and he really was not excited to go. He felt it was going to be one of those overrated tourist trap cities that only girls like because it shows up in romantic comedies. But of course, he can't live in Italy and avoid Venice for long, so he decided to get it over with as quickly as possible. I am happy to say that at the end of it though, he was as impressed with the city as I had been.

About two weeks before our departure date, it started raining all over Italy non-stop (it's been very depressing, but I think now we can see the beginnings of Spring coming about). I was very worried because obviously Venice floods and they get acqua alta (high tide) around this time of the year as well. It would not have been fun to walk around like that. Fortunately, the weather in Venice that weekend was gorgeous!

We arrived in Venice on Thursday night fresh off the train and it was raining, as expected. We forgot our umbrella at home so we had to buy one and start our little trek to the hotel. Another expectation when you go to Venice: you WILL get lost. Even with Google Maps, paper maps, mental maps, whatever you want to use, you WILL get lost. That night, Jaime thought our hotel was half a kilometer away from the station and it turned out it was... considerably farther away. Eventually, we had to call the hotel and ask them for an actual street name since addresses in Venice are literally written down as the name of the sestiere (neighborhood) and a number, which doesn't even go in an particular order.

We finally got to our hotel, which is not even worth mentioning since our room had an overpowering smell of tobacco and our hot water didn't work two of the three nights we were there (word to the wise: I think this is a city where it's better to stay in a HomeAway apartment or the Four Seasons, depending on what your budget is).

The next day, Valentine's Day, we were ready to start exploring!

View from the Rialto Bridge
We started with a leisurely walk from our hotel in the sestiere Cannaregio all the way to Piazza San Marco. Along the way, we stopped at a few costume stores, took pictures, and walked across the famous Ponte Rialto. The weather was fantastic and the city was beautiful.

Picturesque little sign saying the name of the sestiere
In front of the Rialto. 
In Piazza San Marco, we went inside the Basilica di San Marco, which was beautiful of course, but it's a little offensive to me when in every corner they make you pay a couple of euros to see one of their relics. Apparently, most churches in Venice make you pay a tourist fee. After, we went next door to the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge's Palace in English, which was the place of residence for the Venetian Doge until 1797, when it was occupied by Napoleon's troops. After that, Venice was occupied by the French, then the Austrian, and finally became part of Italy in 1866. Doge's Palace is well worth the visit, as it is very impressive inside and you also get to walk across the Bridge of Sighs and see from inside the "last view of the outside world convicts had before their imprisonment."

Feeding the pigeons even though that is technically no longer allowed.

Inside the courtyard at the Palazzo Ducale
Below: The Bridge of Sighs from the inside (left) and the outside (right).

After the Palazzo Ducale, we took a vaporetto, or water bus, to the island across from San Marco, where the San Giorgio Maggiore church is located. The church is nothing spectacular on the inside because it was undergoing restoration, but what we were really there for was the view. A beautiful unobstructed view of Venice at sunset (the Panoramic at the beginning of the post was also taken from here).

Behind us is the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, taken from Piazza San Marco. 

This is the view of Piazza San Marco from the island of San Giorgio. 

Later that night, we had reservations to eat at a restaurant called La Zucca, which means pumpkin. The food was amazing, in particular the primi of Pumpkin Flan, which is not actually the dessert as we know it, but more of a soufflé. It was delicious! The dessert was equally as good, a Bavarese di Mango (which looks more like the flan I know). Like everything else though, the address and maps were absolutely no help to find the place, we literally bumped into it when we thought we still had another quarter of a kilometer to go.

On Saturday night was the official (according to the website) start of the Venetian Carnevale. I was super excited to get to catch some of the carnevale action, but there wasn't much going on that night unfortunately, just people dressed up and out on the streets drinking and dancing until late. The next morning, before we left we got to see the Festa Sul'Acqua, which was almost like a mini-parade on the water along the Grand Canal. The Venetians were dressed up and riding gondolas, while one man sang O Sole Mio accapella with no microphone. No, I am not kidding. It was actually a rather solemn affair, rather than lively, as everyone was quiet to be able to hear the man's voice carry along the canal. Regardless, I have been inspired to attend next years festivities in Venice, but we'll plan to go on Fat Tuesday instead ;).

Festa Sul'Acqua - Carnevale 2014

Before I conclude this long post, I'd like to add some tips for those of you planning to go to Venice:

1. Maps and GPS's are practically useless around here, but your best bet is to be traditional and find a paper map, then ask for street names of any particular places you want to go to, instead of just numbers. This is obviously for things that are not major tourist sites, since those are very well signaled throughout the city.

2. Gondolas are expensive, we all know that. But vaporettos (the water buses) and traghettos (literally a gondola at full capacity that transports you across the canal while standing up) are not exactly cheap either. A 90 minute ticket for the vaporetto is 7 Euros and a traghetto ride (which is less than 30 seconds) is 2 Euros, as of February 2014 (UPDATE: I have just been informed by grand master know-it-all, Jaime, that the ticket is actually for 60 minutes, not 90). My advice is to walk as much as you can. But if you are planning to go to Murano and Burano, buy a 24-hour, 36-hour, or 72-hour ticket, depending on how long you are staying in the city. You will definitely break even and you will get to ride the vaporetto everywhere just because you can.

Venetians riding the Traghetto
One of the best views of the Rialto is from the Vaporetto, line 1.

3. Please, please, please, do not buy a cappuccino in Piazza San Marco for 16 Euros. I am not kidding, that was the going rate for it at Caffe Florian. I don't care how famous that place is, or who has been there, it is not worth it. Add that to the fact that an Italian cappuccino is not a big cup and half of it is filled up with foam anyway. It is offensive.

For more pictures, make sure to visit My Napoleon Complex's facebook page and stay tuned for my next post on Murano and Burano!